LATEST: America's top judges will decide the fate of Anna Nicole Smith's fortune after the buxom blonde broke down in court in Washington DC yesterday (28FEB06).

The model/reality TV star faced the Supreme Court as part of her ongoing bid to inherit a portion of her late husband J HOWARD MARSHALL's fortune.

Wearing all black, Smith started weeping at one point in the proceedings as she sat quietly in the back row of the courthouse.

Justice STEPHEN G BREYER expressed sympathy for her claim, referring to a US district court's finding that her former son-in-law E PIERCE MARSHALL had altered and destroyed documents to keep the fortune out of the young widow's hands.

Breyer also cited evidence that detectives were employed to keep Smith away from her bedside.

But Marshall's spokesman, David Margulies, was defiant on the courthouse steps as the hearing ended - he denied any wrongdoing by his client and portrayed Smith as a gold-digger, adding, "She was abusive to him (the late J Howard Marshall). She was cruel to him."

But Smith's attorney, KENT RICHLAND, was optimistic his client would win her day in court - and it would come sooner than expected.

He told reporters outside the courthouse, "We're in it to win. We're here to resolve the legal issue. It's been 11 years, so it's become business as usual."

Smith's legal spat dates back to 1995 when 89-year-old oil tycoon Marshall died, leaving a fortune of nearly $2 billion (GBP1.15 billion) behind.

Smith was originally awarded $474 million (GBP279 million) by a federal bankruptcy judge, only to have the amount later reduced by a federal district judge.

Eventually, a federal appeals court threw out the entire case on jurisdictional grounds.

The Supreme Court judges will now decide whether Smith can continue to seek a part of Marshall's fortune and whether the decision will be made by a state or federal court.